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The jungle was alive. Birds, similar to parrots on Earth, but with such iridescent plumage they practically glowed, called to one another with melodious songs. Insects — flying, crawling, slithering — buzzed and hummed in an unceasing search for food. Ganar cats, announcing their readiness to mate, roared and howled. A xenoecologist’s dream. And all perfectly safe, of course. Nothing truly dangerous would ever be allowed here, on this world, in this most regulated and controlled of environments. Even the ganars, as large and ferocious-looking as any of Earth’s predator cats, were strict herbivores and really quite timid.
It was all perfectly lovely. And Kenan Negasi cursed it. It wasn’t that he had no appreciation for the intricate beauty of nature. But the constant din from the wildlife made it virtually impossible to hear his quarry, and this made tracking it that much more difficult.
If only it would block out the sound of his companion.
“They could be anywhere,” panted the young Bolian man crouched next to Kenan beside the massive trunk of a fallen tree.
Kenan glanced briefly at the blue-skinned individual beside him, and then turned his attention back to the jungle. “Uh hu,” he responded, hoping his brief reply would discourage further conversation. It didn’t.
“Anywhere,” the Bolian continued at a rapid pace that put the buzzing insects to shame. “It’s impossible to tell. Only a meter away and we wouldn’t even see them through these trees. Behind us even!” Startled by his own thought, the Bolian spun around, almost swiping Kenan across the face with his phaser rifle.
Kenan pushed the offending weapon aside. “I think we should split up,” he said through clenched teeth.
The Bolian looked shocked, even terrified, at the suggestion. “But … but wouldn’t it be safer to stay together? We could cover each other’s backs. Keep a lookout. What if we’re ambushed? What if they try to set a trap for us? What if –“
Kenan grabbed the young man’s shoulder, perhaps a little harder than he meant to, judging by the young man’s wince. “We can cover more ground if we split up.”
“You go that way,” Kenan pointed off to the left.
“I’ll go this way.”
“Signal if you find anyone.”
The Bolian was almost trembling. “How … how should I signal?”
Kenan closed his eyes while he took a deep breath. “Whistle,” he answered quietly.
“Right. Right. I’ll whistle. I’ll whistle if I see anyone. Like a bird call. I’m very good with bird calls. Back home on –“
“Go!” Kenan snapped. He didn’t wait to see if the Bolian had followed the order. He set off in his own direction, creeping carefully through the almost impenetrable vines.
It was only a few minutes later that Kenan heard a most un-birdlike whistle. It was quickly followed by another. Then a third, more shrill. And then the distinctive sound of a phaser beam slicing the air.
Kenan considered going back; guilty conscience or ingrained training that said you never leave a man behind, he couldn’t tell which. In either case, he decided against it. There was no point; the Bolian was finished. Besides, he had just found what he was looking for: a broken twig. True, it could have been from the passing of a ganar cat, but a quick examination of the soft ground nearby revealed humanoid footprints. Ganars didn’t wear shoes.
Kenan followed the tracks and in a few minutes caught up with the person responsible. She was only meters ahead, crouched behind a giant fern. Dressed in camouflage fatigues similar to Kenan’s own, but with a blue band around her helmet instead of red she could have been anyone on the opposing side. But Kenan recognized her trim and toned, yet shapely profile, her graceful movements, the way she carried herself, cautious, yet confident.
Unfortunately he didn’t have a clear line of fire through the trees. He needed to draw her out into the open.
Without taking his eyes from the target, Kenan reached down and picked up a pebble from the ground at his feet. But which way to throw it? If this was his talkative Bolian friend he was after, he’d throw the stone where he didn’t want him to go, sure he’d retreat from any possible danger. But this one was different, a fighter, aggressive. She’d be more likely to move toward the source of the sound, looking for an opportunity to attack.
Kenan drew back, took aim, and threw the stone so it struck a tree to the woman’s right. As he anticipated, she reacted immediately, dropping low and advancing in that direction.
Kenan raised his phaser rifle and took aim. Patiently, he waited till she was clear of the trees. He tightened a finger on the trigger and a narrow burst of energy erupted from the emitter of the weapon.
It struck the woman dead-center in the small of her back and she went down in a heap with a stifled scream.
Kenan stood up and advanced, cautious. Although the chase was now over, he wouldn’t have put anything past her. The woman turned over with a quiet groan, already shaking off the effects of the stun. Her rifle lay a meter away and she glanced at it, but obviously knew there was no point in further resistance.
She was human, in her mid-twenties, and remarkably beautiful. When she pulled off her helmet, a torrent of raven-black hair cascaded over her shoulders.
“So, now that you’ve caught me,” she said, almost smirking, “what are you going to do with me?”
Kenan didn’t lower his rifle. “I can think of a number of options.”
The woman leaned back in what she may have thought was a seductive pose. If so, it didn’t work. Perhaps it was the environment: stifling heat, the pungent odor of decaying vegetation, oppressive humidity. Even on an environmentally controlled world like this, a jungle was still a jungle.
“The post-game party is a Risa tradition,” Kenan mused, motioning with a nod of his head back the way he had come.”
The woman’s smirk disappeared. “I’m sure your Bolian friend would like that.”
Kenan frowned. “Then again …”
“We, could … ” she began.
She shook her head. “No. I left my Horga’hn in my room.”
“Well, let’s go get it.” Kenan held out his hand and helped the woman to her feet.
“Let’s not,” she said. She stooped and picked up her phaser rifle.
“The Horga’hn may be the traditional Risian symbol that one is seeking jamaharon but it’s not strictly required.” She set off through the jungle with Kenan following. “Besides,” she said, winking at him over her shoulder. “Your room is closer.”